When Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of Britain, her favourite television series was a satire of British politics called Yes Minister. In episode five, under-secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby explains the UK's policy towards the EU to the newly appointed minister, James Hacker.
Sir Humphrey: "Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe."
Hacker: "That's all ancient history, surely."
Sir Humphrey: "Yes, and current policy. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn't work. Now that we are inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it's just like the old times."
Hacker: "What appalling cynicism."
Humphrey: "We call it diplomacy, Minister."
The series no longer runs, and the Iron Lady had to stand down in 1990, but the scene hasn't lost any of its timeliness. Nothing has fundamentally changed in Britain's EU policy. The current goal may not be to break up the EU, but London has never viewed European integration as a project of overriding significance – neither before the UK accession nor after it, whether a Tory or Labour government was in power.
Even former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer once said: "England sees itself more as Europe's neighbour than as a European nation." Unlike the founding countries or, later, the former eastern bloc nations, the British didn't join the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 because they felt committed to Europe's values of peace, security and human rights. Their motive was purely economic.
And that's precisely how London shaped its policies over the years. From Thatcher's "I want my money back" to the referendum on June 23, Britain has always tried to derive the maximum benefit for itself. The British weren't interested in any European added value. The organisation VoteWatch Europe analysed all votes in the EU council from 2009 to 2015 and concluded that no country voted against EU initiatives and draft proposals as often as Britain.
For a long time – for far too long – the rest of Europe tolerated the abundant special requests, exceptions and blockades that came along with Britain's EU membership. And to keep the UK in the EU, European leaders once again bent over backwards to accommodate London in the negotiations leading up to the referendum. They bent too far.
Other EU members may be questioning European values in the refugee crisis, but not even Viktor Orbán would hit upon the idea of allowing Hungarians to vote on whether to leave Europe. The people of Hungary would never support such a thing. Departure from the EU is currently only a realistic danger for Britain – mind you, it is the British themselves who would face much of the resulting fallout. For the EU, it would be an opportunity to finally deepen integration so that it can adequately meet the challenges of globalisation.
Extortion only works if there is someone willing to be extorted. Chancellor Angela Merkel says it is very much in Germany's interests that the UK stays in the EU. But Britain's voting behaviour alone is enough to contradict her. In the last six years, Britain has voted against Germany more often than any other EU country.
We are told we need the British because of their prudence when it comes to economic policy and as a counterweight to southern member states that, it is said, are focused exclusively on ensuring that the richer north continues to support them. This argument, however, is only partly true. For years, London has repeatedly violated Maastricht criteria. The British budget deficit is higher than that of France or Greece and the country's hidden public debt, at well over 400% of gross domestic product, is among the EU's highest. When Merkel argued in December 2011 for the closer monitoring of national budgets and a stricter debt ceiling, Cameron vetoed her proposals.
When it comes to fiscal discipline, Hungary, Slovakia and the Baltic states are far closer to Germany than Britain is. At the height of the euro crisis, George Osborne called for the pooling of member state sovereign debt, or "eurobonds". Have a say without actually belonging: that seems to be the blueprint for the UK's EU policy.
Even the loss of Britain as a net payer would be manageable. First, it would force the EU to cut spending, which would also be in Germany's interests. Second, Brussels could recoup the missing billions by effectively combating tax havens and finally introducing a financial transaction tax worthy of the name. So far, the British have thwarted this effort with their determination to protect London as a financial centre.
Another popular argument against Brexit is Britain's international importance. Opponents say the EU can ill afford to do without a military heavyweight and veto-wielding permanent member of the UN security council, but this isn't very convincing. Europe's security is guaranteed first and foremost by NATO, and Brexit wouldn't change that. Besides, why should Britain suddenly advocate a completely different foreign policy in the security council merely because it is no longer a member of the EU?
In short, fears of Brexit are exaggerated. This also applies to the domino effect that experts and politicians like to invoke. If Britain leaves the EU, other countries could feel encouraged to follow suit, they argue. But Brexit is actually more likely to serve as a deterrent. Some economists say the economic consequences would be more serious for Britain than the EU. Besides, it currently looks as though the British want to remain part of the common market. The example of Norway shows how unattractive this is. It has no say in shaping the rules of the EU single market and yet it must abide by them in addition to paying dues of almost €400m a year.
The copycat effect will be much greater if Cameron's blackmail attempt is rewarded and the UK remains a member of the EU. Other governments would also seek to negotiate special terms for their countries. They could point to the anti-European right-wing populists at home and demand more money. Or they could demand that certain powers be transferred back to the national level. In the end, the EU would be little more than a large free trade zone. And the British would have achieved what they sought in 1960, when they and six other European countries formed the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as a competing organisation to the then EEC.
A British withdrawal would force all remaining member states to confront the question: do you want to be a part of the union and support the preamble of the Lisbon treaty, with the goal of an "ever closer union"? Even if other states were to withdraw, the core of the EU would be strengthened.
What is certain is that the British blockade of important steps towards integration would finally be over. This applies, in particular, to common foreign and security policy. It's London's fault that the policy only exists on paper at this point. EU military operations are becoming more important and the Sophia mission targeting human traffickers in the Mediterranean shows how vital a common approach is for Europe. But setting up a joint military headquarters to control such operations centrally? That proposal failed in 2011, vetoed by the British.
Majority decisions to improve the EU's ability to act in matters of foreign policy? Not with London. A European foreign minister? God forbid!
It remains to be hoped that the 27 heads of state and government will not be spooked by their own courage on the day after the referendum. They decided that the concessions to London would only apply if the British remained in the EU. If Britain votes for Brexit, the offer will "self-destruct", according to an internal European commission document.
But in the last few days there has been talk within Germany's centre-right Christian Democratic Union that perhaps everything could be revisited if the leave camp is slightly ahead. In other words, the German government isn't ruling out new concessions to the British. It would be a victory for opponents of the EU and a squandered opportunity for Europe.
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Christoph Schult, 44, began his journalism career at SPIEGEL Online before transferring to SPIEGEL's Berlin bureau in 2001. After stints as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem and in Brussels, he returned to Berlin last summer. Schult writes mostly about European politics and foreign policy.